Emily Kissell grew up in rural Pennsylvania. She received her B. A. in Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME. She now lives in southern Maine where she cooks and writes.
Staring at Joe as he snores - his mouth half-open, his cheek laced with drool, his eyes (his only remarkable feature) hidden - you sometimes wonder about the nature of love. You wonder if what you feel for him is truly love. The thing that makes others run foolishly through flowered fields and can give any movie a happy ending seems a far cry from what you feel. You wonder if you can have love without passion. Are they one in the same? Two autonomous creatures? Or more like Siamese twins, joined at the hip, distinguishable yet inseparable?
You’re lucky. You’ve known Robert since you could walk. As children, you did everything together. All the mothers whispered and giggled how you would grow up and get married, but none of them truly believed it. You did. You knew Robert was your soulmate when you were both seven. You can even pinpoint, so many years later, the moment when you were sure.
It was the day of your First Communion. With you in your frilly white dress and he in his miniature suit, it should’ve been a dress rehearsal of your wedding day. But on that sunny May Sunday, Bobby was nowhere in sight. You stood alone outside the glaring walls of the church like a jilted bride. The Sunday school teacher confessed to your mother that Bobby had come down with chicken pox the night before.
How you cried! They couldn’t console you or even dent your grief. Ignoring your sniffles and wails, your mother pushed you into the line of children waiting to chow down on their savior. She barely listened when you claimed your starched lace collar itched, but finally took notice of the damage your scratching had inflicted.
And there they were! Your very own chicken pox standing out on your neck like the prescient ghosts of the high school hickies that Bobby (then Bob) would give you.
Your mother sighed and gathered up her contagious little darling to take home. She offered soothing words about ice cream and Benadryl, but your tears had dried, because you knew then, with a child’s certainty that would last a lifetime, that nothing would ever separate you from Bobby, Bob or Robert.
And nothing ever has.
They all tell you that Joe’s not good enough for you. How many years have you listened to the refrain, “You could do better”? You admit freely that Joe is not glamorous. He has no movie-star smile. (He needed braces as a child and never got them. It’s left him crooked and overbit.) He has a beer belly, and when he bends over, his ass crack shows, just like a plumber. He snores and spits on the sidewalk.
But Joe is steady. He is dependable - something you value more than beauty. He has a good job as a high school science teacher and football coach. And he’s so very much in love with you.
But why then have you said “No” every time he pulls out the ring? (The same ring he has been hoarding with hope for the last five years.) Is it their “Better”s echoing at you? Or is it something else? Perhaps the same fairy wings that keep you awake, staring at him as he sleeps, and wondering how you’re supposed to know what love is?
When you close your eyes and think of love, you begin to sweat as your mind takes you back to that humid September afternoon on Andrea Harris’s couch. It was 104 degrees in the shade. You were both fourteen and exploring the joys of French kissing for the first time.
Her parents were out for the day, and she had invited you over to watch movies. They played obediently in the background, but you didn’t see any of them. Although Andrea insisted on getting up and changing tapes when the last one ended, you couldn’t see how it mattered.
Your lips were glued together (just like your sweaty bodies adhered to the dust cover of her couch). You learned how easy it was to breath entirely through your nose that day. Your tongues wrestled each other, never tiring.
But every time you grew bold, your hand reaching for her breast, she firmly guided it back down to her waist where your fingers steeped in the sweat pooling in the small of her back. Yet you never bored of her taste, her smell, her sweat against your fingers. And by sunset, you were sure you knew the meaning of love. Love was, most definitely, this.
But when you approached her in the hall on Monday morning, she shrugged you off, commenting that Saturday was “Okay,” but she didn’t think she wanted you to come over anymore. You stood there gap-jawed at her betrayal as she walked away holding hands with Brady Smith.
Yet for some reason, when you close your eyes and try to picture the perfect affair, you instead feel the texture of Andrea Harris’s couch stuck to your sweaty skin.
You know Joe’s body better than your own. Even through the dark of your bedroom, your eyes can trace him beneath the sheets. It is a fine body, fine in the sense of “How are you to today?” - “Fine,” just a small step above “Okay”/shrug. You’ve never longed for him to be more beautiful. You’ve never known lust, except theoretically, as something that happens to others.
But then, you ask yourself, what is wrong? Why do you have this sense that there is something more, although you don’t know what, since you’ve never sensed the more within any of your other romances?
You’ve tried having affairs, but they feel flat and taste bad, a bit like lozenges. And yet you can’t help longing for more, desperately, as if it’s waiting just around the corner. However, you’ve begun to realize that, like lust, more may only happen to other people.
You can still remember how your first girl tasted - just like her honeysuckle perfume. It was just for fun, your lips on hers. The two of you could barely hush your giggles long enough to feel. You hadn’t known until that night that you preferred the taste of girl. Like your vegetarianism, it snuck up on you - an ambush of sorts, but a friendly one.
That night you had been alone together in your attic bedroom, burning Voodoo Barbie, or rather, melting her. You were destroying an effigy of Sharon Miller, the girl who had slept with Heather’s boyfriend the previous weekend. You had opened all the windows so you would not set off the fire alarm and your mother would not smell the stench of decaying plastic. The January air forced you to huddle under a blanket together, bent over the warmth of the doll that was no longer anything but fake hair and pointed feet. Your faces had already been practically touching when she had whispered defiantly, “We don’t need those slutty boys anyway, do we?” Then Heather had turned her face and kissed you beneath the blanket.
She had pulled back laughing a moment later, after her lips had barely grazed yours, and poked at the decrepit sacrifice that had once been Sharon Miller. But you were struck speechless. Your whole world had changed, because Heather’s lips had been the sweetest thing you had ever tasted. You wondered why you had never guessed that you loved the taste of honey-suckle above all others.
Sometimes you still extol her to your friends. You lean back on the cushions of your porch swing, a cigarette dripping from your right hand and cry, after a dramatic introductory inhale, “I love being a lesbian. I love it!” And how long would it have taken you to discover this love, if it hadn’t been for your best friend’s experimental streak on a Winter night of giddy confidences? Thank God, and Heather, that you never had to find out.
You can’t even recall when you met Joe. You’ve known him forever. He was there in kindergarten, pulling your pigtails and making you squeal at the bugs he put down your dress.
By the time you kissed for the first time he already felt so comfortable, like a broken-in pair of jeans, it was as if nothing had changed. You can’t remember whose idea it was to make love for the first time. It just happened. You’d already been finishing each other’s sentences for years. So it was probably neither of you. Or both.
So why is it that you’ve never wanted him? That you make love whenever he has the need? You don’t resent him for it. It’s always pleasant enough. You never feel the gap except when think about what love must look like inside other people’s heads.
For some reason when asked to name your first love, you think of your last girl. Her name was Jamie, and she was only fourteen. You were seventeen, and at the time, thoroughly besotted with Troy who was dating Danielle, who just happened to be Jamie’s best friend and confidant. So there you were - a foursome, a permanent double date. You marked your last days of high school with one hand on Jamie’s breast, the other on the closet doorknob, and your eyes on Troy’s lips where they met Danielle’s neck.
Being “out” was within sight. The gateway to an open life could be reached just as soon as you escaped your hometown for those liberal skies known as college. But until that time Jamie’s and Troy’s blonde curls melted into one
In those months, every time you closed your eyes you would see Troy’s awesomely blue eyes gazing back at you, but now, countless men later, you find yourself thinking of Jamie’s laugh, her blue eyes. You wonder if she always knew you desired Troy and got off on the irony, just like you did. Who knows, maybe she was seeing Danielle in your eyes.
Lying in bed at night, your arm curled around the muscular shoulder of your current lover, you can still feel the texture of her breasts under your hands, her nipples teasing your palms. You wonder where your last girl is now. You wonder if you somehow found her again if you could recapture that beautiful feeling of existing between two states, of not having one or the other but of having everything. You wonder if you can ever again stand on the closet’s threshold once you’ve stepped over. You wonder about what love really is.
You never told Joe you were pregnant. You just went and quietly arranged for the abortion. The guilt still lies on you like a lead blanket. (Yes, it probably is cancerous.) Sometimes, you want to tell him, in the hopes that he won’t forgive you. You hope that here, finally, is a line which his love will not cross unbroken.
You want to confess the abortion, and along with it, the sin of not loving him enough. Staring at the wand stained blue with urine, all you had been able to think was, married or not, this creature would tie you to Joe forever. You had already doubted your ability to snap your bonds, but a child meant they would have been forged in steel.
So you let them scrape it out of you. The pain and depression that followed seemed no more than you deserved for being such a worthless person, incapable of love.
You met him the third day of your family’s vacation in Mexico. You rented motor scooters together and drove them around the island. You disembarked on a deserted beach, far away from the bright T-shirts and shouted obscenities of the other American tourists. You held hands as you traced the line in the beach where the ocean met the land. Your laughter tasted sweet as the spray soaked your shorts.
The private cove the two of you found was perfect, far away from the island road. You told him how you had watched “From Here to Eternity” on TV. But you held back the sounds of you messily chewing popcorn and the soda you spilled on your pajamas. Here, in the tropical sunlight, you were graceful and lovely. You were Deborah Kerr, and he was Burt Lancaster. And he grinned at your romantic foolishness, much more interested in how your wet T-shirt looked plastered to your chest than a black and white movie. His eyes moved meaningfully to the surf. “Let’s do it,” he said. And so you made love right there on the beach. The whole time you could hear the theme music playing in the background.
It should have felt cheap, contrived, casual. But now, two marriages and fifteen years later, it still feels like it might’ve been love. You know you’ve never had sex like that since.
Joe brings out the wedding ring on every special occasion, like one more holiday decoration. He smiles, gets down on one knee and gives it the old college try. It’s become a tradition - like turkey and pumpkin pie.
It never ceases to make you cry. You use one excuse after another. The “I’m not ready”s and “I don’t believe in marriage”s rain from your lips like curses.
“I’m just not sure,” you say. “Maybe next year,” you say. Along with “I’m sorry” and “I wish I could say yes, but I just can’t.”
By now it doesn’t even seem to phase him. He just gives you a hug and puts away the ring until next time the calendar gives him permission to try once more.
You’ve always known what love is not. Love is not waking up beside a stranger and having to dig around in your head for her name. Love is not found over four drinks and a condom. Love is never, under any circumstances, named Bambi. But it’s taken you awhile to begin to pinpoint what love is.
Love is spending your first date in the emergency room because your date tripped on your shoelace and broke her toe, and you don’t mind a bit. Love is her laugh, loud and unlike anything you’ve encountered in nature. Love is a different shade of lipstick for every mood. Love is totally unexpected. It’s kind of like being hit over the head from behind with a frying pan . . . but in a good way. It’s watching her constantly and yet being totally amazed by every moment. It’s listening to the Police tell you “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and saying, “Exactly.”
“This,” you think, your arm cradling her to your chest, “is love.”
You stare at Joe as he sleeps and you practice.
You say, “Yes.”
You say, “I would love to marry you.”
You say, “I love you.”
You say, “I want to make love. Now.”
You wish your voice didn’t sound so hollow, so fake.
You can’t keep the pictures of others’ fantasies out of your mind.
You can’t help the tears.